For the past 38 years, Mary Hunt has worked tirelessly to sow community development seeds around the Mountain State—and West Virginia is better for it.
In folklore, Johnny Appleseed walked around the region spreading apple seeds scattershot as random acts of generosity. But in reality, Johnny Chapman was an orchardist who planted strategically near hundreds of communities, praying that those trees and those communities would grow together and that he would then be able to provide fresh fruit to folks in bustling towns. Like a Mountain State Johnny Appleseed planting strategic orchards of growth and prosperity, Mary Hunt, who is currently a program director for The Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, has spent the past 38 years working in community development, and the seeds she’s helped plant have taken root all over West Virginia.
Sowing Seeds of Growth at Home
Hunt was born into one of those families who always seemed to be helping out someone, somewhere. “My family has always been community-minded,” she says. “My dad was a union officer, and my late brother was also in the union. Mom was head of the church ladies’ society, and my brother Jim was a city councilperson.”
The example Hunt’s family provided would serve as clear inspiration for her work in the decades to come. In fact, when she received the 2015 Jean Ambrose Champion of Community Development Award from the West Virginia Community Development Hub—a group she helped birth—she dedicated the award to her father, Rex Hunt, “who planted so many trees that he knew he would never see grow,” she said at the time.
Hunt’s own career in community development began in the late 1970s, while she was still a student at Fairmont State University. It was then when she began working at an earlier incarnation of today’s Clarksburg-Harrison Regional Housing Authority. By 1981, she was its director. “My first job coming out of college was helping with housing and that led to all things community,” Hunt recalls. “That’s how my career took its track.”
She learned at the housing authority how to ask for help, then execute a plan. “My boss was really dynamic and was always developing projects, and I was learning from her. We applied for three block grants for a community center, sidewalks through Stonewood, and then a water and sewer project in Summer Park. We got all three, and that taught me many things—how to market, plan, and implement a project,” she says. “I learned, if you do good work, resources come. The next thing you know you are putting sidewalks through an entire town.”
Called to Help in Charleston
It wasn’t long before Hunt’s services were called on in the capital city. She worked for the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Community Development in Charleston throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s before going to the West Virginia Department of Commerce. During that time, she also completed a master’s degree in public administration at WVU.
Hunt was in Charleston at a pivotal time, when major development projects were coming to fruition. It is hard to imagine a Charleston today without such iconic spaces as Haddad Riverfront Park and Capitol Market, but Hunt was there when the ideas were conceived. “The riverfront park was our main project, along with a Charleston farmers market and numerous homeless shelters,” she says. “We had a lot of grants that came about. We developed a men’s and women’s homeless shelter and a domestic violence shelter—a lot of really powerful work that helped address some big problems for people in need.” For Hunt, the projects provided affirmation that her efforts and those of other hardworking individuals could create true community assets, ones that folks could reap from for years to come.
Hunt made her mark in state government, too. In the early 1990s, during Gaston Caperton’s administration, she worked as executive assistant to the cabinet secretary for the West Virginia Department of Commerce for two years and then as the chief of administration for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection for five years, through 1997. One of her longtime friends and colleagues Monica Miller, who recently retired from the West Virginia Development Office, has known Hunt since the early 1990s. Miller is now a consultant and has collaborated with Hunt countless times, on heritage tourism and Main Street projects early on and, most recently, providing coaches for Appalachian Regional Commission POWER (Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization) grantees through the West Virginia Community Development Hub. Miller says Hunt’s years of working in community development from almost every angle possible has served her—and her home state—well.
“She knows everybody,” Miller says. “She is a great connector. When she is giving someone advice or helping coach someone through a project, she is able to pull from all of her experiences and connections she’s created over the years. She has a perspective that a lot of folks don’t have.”
From Grant Writer to Grant Giver
Then, 20 years ago, Hunt found a way to make the most of her skills and connections by landing a pivotal programming director position with the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.
Established by Bridgeport native and oil and gas industry businessman Michael L. Benedum in 1944, the Benedum Foundation celebrated 75 years of strategic community building in 2019. The foundation provides grant funding throughout West Virginia and Pittsburgh, two places Benedum and his wife, Sarah, a Blacksville native, called home during their lifetime together. It supports work in the areas of education, economic development, health and human services, community development, and civic engagement. Since 1944 the organization has given more than 8,300 grants and $473 million to foster education, health, and community development in West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania.
During Hunt’s lengthy tenure, she has helped distribute grants in almost all 55 of West Virginia’s counties, supporting nearly 650 grant projects and touching roughly 200 organizations, according to Benedum Foundation records. One is hard pressed to find a foundation that has worked as hard and extensively in West Virginia as the Benedum Foundation. Hunt says, “Because of my previous work, I was able to see things from the perspective of people trying to make major changes. As a funder, I try to keep abreast of all of that. I understand the challenges.” Bruce Decker has known Hunt for more than 20 years. He is the founder and owner of Collective Impact, a Pennsylvania- based capacity-building team that helps organizations in 14 states and Washington, D.C. make the most of grant dollars. He calls Hunt a visionary who is “the single most important pioneering and passionate person in community development in West Virginia.”
Decker is also a past board president with Create Huntington, Inc., a grassroots organization that empowers residents to make positive change in their community. He says having Hunt and her passion and knowledge at Benedum has been a perfect storm for good in West Virginia. With Hunt’s guidance, Create Huntington was birthed from a Benedum Foundation grant in 2008. Since then, Create Huntington has started a grassroots revolution in the Jewel City and implemented dozens of projects, such as reviving the Shops at Heritage Station and building a new creative class with a focus on arts, music, and shops that has been instrumental in reviving the downtown.
“When Mary moved into her role with The Benedum Foundation, it gave her an opportunity to not only lead the charge but to provide more resources. Mary’s leadership and the projects she has been involved with, like The Hub, has helped us all to become more strategic in our intention,” Decker says. “When you work with Mary you realize not only can we do it, but we absolutely have to do it. Nobody else is going to come and change our state for good. I think her love for the state and her ability to motivate and mobilize communities has been very, very important in how we think about ourselves and how we do things in our state.”
Hunt says being a cheerleader for positive change is indeed a role she loves. “I think being a cheerleader was the best training for this job,” Hunt says. “There is so much good work going on. It’s important for us to cheerlead for those folks who are in the trenches, who feel like they are struggling. Then we cheer them on again when they’ve achieved their goals. I have the best job in the world.”
“Mary Hunt is the single most important pioneering and passionate person in community development in West Virginia.” Bruce E. Decker
Re-Shaping Community Development Into The Hub
By many accounts, one of Hunt’s greatest visions and contributions has been the 2008 establishment of the West Virginia Community Development Hub. Before The Hub was born, West Virginia had two statewide community development groups—The Community Development Partnership of West Virginia and the Community Collaborative, Inc. Kent Spellman, who was president of The Community Development Partnership, became The Hub’s first executive director and served until 2016. “The two things that make Mary very special is that she has great vision and she thinks strategically,” says Spellman.
“Mary saw that these two organizations were not working as efficiently as they could be,” Spellman continues. “These groups came together and developed a model for what community development should look like. Mary was instrumental in all of that.” Although merging the two groups was not easy, Spellman says initiatives started under his tenure and many others under current director Stephanie Tyree have proved Hunt’s vision for The Hub has been a great success.
One project that the Benedum Foundation and The Hub worked closely on was the Turn This Town Around initiative, created by this magazine’s parent company, New South Media. “When I had this crazy idea as a media company to create an economic development initiative called Turn This Town Around, the first person I called was Mary Hunt,” recalls Nikki Bowman Mills, founder, publisher, and editor of New South Media. “She came to my office and we sat around the table. She listened intently and said, ‘I love this idea. Let’s get Kent Spellman and The Hub involved in our conversations.’ She’s great at brainstorming, anticipating challenges, and making the connections so that projects are completed.” Through Turn This Town Around and The Hub’s oversight and training and grant funding provided by the Benedum Foundation, small communities like Grafton, Matewan, Whitesville, and Ripley became reenergized; New South Media documented the challenges and successes along the way. Farmers markets were established, a rail trail program funded, a grocery store in a food desert sprouted, small businesses launched, and beautification projects painted the towns in a new light—and the effects are still being felt today.
Another community development project that Hunt and the Benedum Foundation helped support is Princeton’s downtown revitalization efforts, led by Lori McKinney and her husband Robert Blankenship. They founded the Create Your State initiative that promotes using arts and music to help inspire town renaissances, and through Benedum Foundation grants, have been able to take their “Create Your State” arts-based empowerment program on the road to other towns. “It’s clear when you talk to Mary that she understands folks who are driven to make change. She gets the depth and humanity of it all, because she is coming from that place herself; she strives as an individual to bring all she can to the table to make the world a better place,” says McKinney. “She is a warm soul, and you can feel that when you are near her. She cares about people, and she cares about the world we are creating for future generations.”
Hunt understands that an important component of sustainable community development is the training of younger generations. She has always believed and invested in the next generation. “Mary sees that the future lies in the hands of our young people, and so Benedum and The Hub invested a lot in bringing young people into positions where they could make a difference and empower them to make decisions on their own,” Spellman says.
Community Building For The Future
No matter who you speak to, if they’ve worked with Mary Hunt, they will say that the guidance she has provided is priceless and that she has been instrumental in keeping community development in West Virginia moving forward. “We think of community development as very linear and that it continues to move forward but that is not the case,” Decker says. “It’s two steps forward, five steps back, and three sideways. Mary’s consistent leadership has helped move the momentum forward in a way that would not typically happen. She is a solid rock for our region.”
Hunt believes in action. She is excited about community development and education projects that are results driven. “Mary is such an incredible thinker and an idea person, but she’s also a doer. She is able to implement and help people implement things,” Miller says. “She brings such good energy to the room. Our state has some overwhelming issues to deal with right now, but that doesn’t deter Mary. She always shows up with a can-do attitude.”
For her part, Hunt says she is inspired daily by the work people are doing in small communities and cities around the state to make positive changes in the places they call home. “The seeds that we are planting now we may never live to see grow, but we know it is important for the next generations,” she says. “Despite the challenges we are facing, I am enthusiastic about West Virginia’s future.”